Conventional wisdom has it that a person has to be crazy to open a restaurant. After all, times are tough, customers are fickle, and most of the year -- in Western New York, anyway -- the weather is not conducive to dining out.
It's either too cold (everyone hibernates). Or too hot (everyone grills out).
And, of course, conventional wisdom maintains that there are many other reasons to give the food business a wide berth.
But if you subscribe to the belief that restaurants that open on the sites of other failed restaurants have two strikes against them; or if you think that no restaurant can succeed on a mean street in downtown Buffalo; or if you think the South Towns can't support a fine-dining establishment -- you could be wrong.
At least three local restaurateurs have beaten those particular odds in recent years: Biac's World Bistro on Delaware Avenue, the Calumet Arts Cafe on West Chippewa Street, and Daniel's in Hamburg.
Luckily for our taste buds, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Let's talk about Biac's first. It was opened on Friday the 13th (Nov. 13, 1992, to be exact), by John F. Baiocco, a self-described "poor sleeper." He was, at the time, just over 30 years old.
The mansion he set his restaurant in is more than four times older. It dates to the late 1800s and has been home to several restaurants, among them Maximillian's, Joe Agro's, Artisan and Yianni's.
This building was what Realtors like to call a "handyman's special" -- meaning ancient electricity, falling ceilings and no heat in the kitchen.
Eight weeks after purchase, Biac's opened with magnificently refinished hardwood floors, gorgeous sponged walls and handsome hardware. Baiocco was helped in performing this miracle by his family's contacts in the construction business, but he applied plenty of his own elbow grease, scraping stucco off brick walls.
"I had an idea of what I wanted it to be," he says.
What he wanted was a little something for everyone. A place that offered a good mix of eating and drinking; creative bistro food but somewhat casual.
"The '90s are not about a suit and tie every single night."
Baiocco had seen restaurants in this pattern all over Manhattan, where he worked for a while as restaurant director at Tavern on the Green. He also knew the local market, having taken the reins at his family's Town of Amherst restaurant, Dandelion's, at the ripe age of 23.
"Buffalo was ready. It was time for something new and interesting. Maybe five years earlier, a restaurant like mine wouldn't have made it," Baiocco admits.
But it's making it now. "In my wildest dreams I never thought we'd be so successful. We've more than doubled our original projections," he says.
The place seats 50; lunch does "decent" business. And it's always "at least semi-full for dinner" early in the week.
On Friday nights the bar scene is wild, and on Saturday night Baiocco has been known to turn down close to 300 reservations for dinner -- and then worry, because "you can't afford to alienate people in Buffalo."
This, in a year when the Philharmonic struggled and Shea's was dark much of the time. But Baiocco says you can't just live off events in Western New York.
"I have the best staff in Buffalo," he says, "and I've been lucky in my chefs."
It's true that his chefs roster reads like the culinary Who's Who. The current chef is Robert Mollot, a native Western New Yorker who came to Biac's by way of Bradley Ogden's in San Francisco. Paula Paradise is pastry chef.
But Biac's also has employed Mark Hutchinson, who once worked at the well-established Oliver's, and Mike Adrzejewski, who once worked at the also well-established Rue Franklin and Warren's and now works at Oliver's; also Joe George, who now runs his own restaurant, Cafe Cosmos, on Allen Street.
How does Baiocco attract this talent?
"Not only does he pay a fair price," says Joe George, "but he does something even better than that -- he really gives you the freedom to do what you want to do."
As for Biac's customers -- "I hate the term 'yuppie,' " Baiocco says. But he admits it's a pretty hip crowd.
"A lot of them are my friends," says the young owner.
Baiocco describes his clientele as "middle-aged," by which he seems to mean persons between ages 25 and 65.
"I don't want a real young crowd, like 21 years old.
"I get everyone from old Buffalo families to actors from the Studio Arena." The average check runs around $22, which Baiocco describes as "expensive -- just a little less than Oliver's and Warren's but in the same range as Just Pasta, the Brick Alley Bistro and Saki's.
"We get the same with-it crowd."
The most popular dinner entree is the Herb Roasted Chicken -- Bob Mollot located the source of free-range fowl and diners appreciate it. Of late, the Lamb Shanks also are doing especially well.
But pizza and cappuccino are also available, especially late at night.
So well has John Baiocco done that he has just opened another restaurant in partnership with Dave Schutte and Sara Kallett. Called Babalu Caribbean Bar and Grille, it is on Virginia Place, a fork's reach from Biac's.
"A lot of restaurants in one area is a good thing," he says.
Brightly colored, complete with fish tanks and juice bar, it's much more casual than Biac's with a lower average check, around $9 to $12.
"You go there in addition to, not instead of, Biac's. You go on a different night," Baiocco explains.
"How can I not be optimistic?" he asks. "I'm not a religious person but I thank God I've been so lucky."
And true to form, he is starting out Babalu with another remarkable chef, Paul Jenkins, late of the Audubon Room.
Daniel Johengen, of Daniel's on Buffalo Street in Hamburg, doesn't worry about hiring chefs because the young (39) owner does his own cooking. Daniel's remains a very personal restaurant.
"If I'm not here, we're not open," says the owner-chef.
The staff is small. Besides Johengen and Debbie, his wife, who has decorated the subtle, elegant restaurant and tends to the business affairs, there are Tom Kitson, who tends the door; two cooks; two dishwashers, and five servers.
Johengen left his job as chef at Oliver's to open his own place in March 1990. His menu is creative. It features such entrees as Duck Breast with Pear Puree and Raspberry Sauce, and Pork Tenderloin with Sundried Cherries, Wild Mushrooms and Port Wine Sauce for $15.95. There also are at least five seafood specials daily.
And to the naysayers who pointed out that he was taking a terrific risk opening up because there never had been a so-called "gourmet" restaurant in the South Towns, Johengen simply replied, "That means less competition.
"And I was not about to change the way I cooked."
The Johengens seem to make a lot of decisions by instinct. Trained at Rochester Institute of Technology, the North Collins native moved to San Francisco, where he worked in French restaurants.
But then he, Debbie and their first child moved back home and bought a big house in the South Towns because "we were ready for a change."
Johengen got his job at Oliver's in 1985 and worked there until he left to open his own place, which had been his lifelong dream.
He and his wife ate lunch at the restaurant called the Berries in Hamburg one day and just decided to buy it.
"The size was good (about 45 seats) and it just sort of felt right.
"Then we looked at a map and found out that Hamburg is 15 minutes away from the Aud in downtown Buffalo, five minutes from the Thruway, 10 minutes from Orchard Park and five minutes from the lake. Our customers come from everywhere."
Johengen does all the cooking -- from the rolls to the pastry. "And I watch everything that goes out the kitchen door.
"The hardest thing about a restaurant is that you have to be consistent, 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, 365 days of the year."
The restaurant has changed through the years. In the beginning lunch was served because, Johengen says, "we wanted people to get to know us." In the past few years, however, they've felt secure enough to give that up.
Also, in the early years the menu was less sophisticated, the owner points out.
"We only offered inexpensive white wines, and we were actually afraid to put rack of the lamb on the menu because it was too expensive," he recalls. It's there, now, though. Rack of Lamb and Broiled Sea Scallops make up Daniel's Surf and Turf.
Daniel's features seven-course Food and Wine Pairing Dinners from time to time, with such items as Ginger Curried Vegetable Strudel and Roast Lobster with Vanilla Butter Sauce. The prix fixe is $65, and the dinners have proved so popular that the meal is offered both Sunday and Monday nights.
"Even when we started," says Johengen, "the economy was not too strong, but you can't worry about everything that's not in your control. We managed and we supported the staff. We're very proud."
Most of his peers feel he has a right to be proud.
"He's done everything right," says John Tronolone of Oliver's. "He kept the place small and he kept the staff small. He also owns the building, and that makes things easier, too."
And what about the South Towns mystique -- the fact that there are few fine-dining restaurants south of the city, even though demographics show the area can support them?
"No one really knows why," shrugs Tronolone. "There really is a lot of growth out that way, but not too many people have tried to open up."
Mark Goldman opened the Calumet Arts Cafe in September 1990 in what was considered at that time one of the worst locations in the city. He had purchased (and beautifully refurbished) an historic building at 54 W. Chippewa, at the southeast corner of Franklin Street.
"People told me I was crazy," Goldman says.
"It took me a while to figure out what my market was," he says. "You have to find your niche.
"My first blind alley was that I thought I was opening a neighborhood restaurant and people would just drop in.
"So now I operate a supper club. It's open from Wednesday to Sunday and I give people very good food (the current chef, Dana White, prepares such goodies as Squid Ink Pasta tossed with Mussels, Clams, Scallops and Shrimp and Fresh Roasted Salmon) and very good service (there's valet parking and a coat check) and very good music (Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross has appeared at Calumet, and Dave Brubach and Chuck Mangione are on the schedule).
"The average check is now $25 to $28 for dinner, and I want it to go up, not down," Goldman says.
"I am not a volume place.
"Yes, I know people will tell you that diners won't pay that kind of money in Buffalo, but they already are doing it," he says.
"I had the best winter quarter I ever had."
Still, Goldman stays flexible. The Irish Classical Theatre is housed in the same building as the restaurant, and people often eat at Calumet before a performance.
And as a well-established and published architecture and community historian, Goldman also runs bus tours to specific areas of the city and brings the participants back to eat.
"But why should I serve lunch on a regular basis?" he asks. "The overhead is the same but the check is one-third of a dinner check because nobody drinks alcohol.
"I'm not losing any dinner business; people don't live in this neighborhood. They pay $5 for a salami sandwich and it costs me $8.
"To tell the truth," Goldman says, "I no longer have all that much confidence in downtown Buffalo, but I figure I can do well anyway. I have this awful vision of downtown in 10 years with all the buildings torn down and nothing but parking lots. Those parking lots will be for my customers.
"That's where they will be."